The Worship War

July 10, 2018

by James Tealy

20 years ago, the church appeared embattled in a “Worship War.” At least you would think so from the countless books, articles, and conferences dedicated to the topic. At the front lines of this war, “traditional worship” faced off against “contemporary worship.” Hymns versus choruses, organs versus guitars, robed choirs versus polo-shirted praise teams. It has been years since I heard vitriolic arguments stirring over drums and video screens but there is a worship war that still rages in the congregation I now serve; a battle brewing between worship in Spirit and worship in Truth.

Perhaps Jesus’ most profound comment about worship is found in his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. She asks Jesus a question about the proper LOCATION of worship. Jesus responds, “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24 HCSB).

Spirit AND Truth; the marks of the worship God desires. I have long treated them as two opposing ends of a continuum. At one end there are those who “worship in TRUTH.” They value depth of traditional theological language in their worship and often deride emotional expression. Worship at the Truth end of the continuum is primarily an intellectual exercise. Conversely, those who value “worship in SPIRIT” chase an emotional encounter with Jesus at the expense of a cognitive understanding of who Jesus is or what following Jesus will look like. Worship at the Spirit end of the continuum is primarily “an experience.” But are either of these extremes really what Jesus meant by “Spirit and Truth?” Perhaps the AND between those two elements is more important than I realized.

In the congregation I now serve, I have lamented that some weeks it feels like our people don’t even really LIKE Jesus much less LOVE Him. I long for the emotional expressiveness of our people to at least approach (if not rival) the kind of passion they show their favorite college sports team. There is a worship war that still rages. The front-lines of that battle are within me. I have inadvertently replaced the teachings Jesus in John 4 with my own version of worship in “Spirit OR Truth.” I have stood between the two extremes pointing my judgmental finger in both directions.

But in addressing the woman at the well, Jesus suggests that true worship is involves 100% Truth and 100% Spirit, not some half-way balance between the two. In his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Don Whitney writes, “Actually, these balancing truths of worshiping in spirit and truth are complimentary. It is important to realize this because frankly, all of us have at times attempted to engage in public or private worship and found no fire on the altar of our heart. Meditation on the truth, rightly done, can kindle the emotions of worship. Conversely, the right kind of heart for God longs to be guided by the truth. We must have both. Jesus said the greatest commandment involved loving God with all the heart and with all the mind (Mark 12:30). Otherwise, we worship in vain.”

Most Sundays I wish our people would bring more of their heart to the altar of God, more abandon, more emotion, more expression. However, a looser grip on the deep truths in our lyrics will not get us there. I am learning to call our people both to LOVE Jesus more deeply and to KNOW Him more fully.

With that pursuit in mind, here are a few steps we can all take toward worshiping Jesus in Spirit AND Truth:

Worship on purpose. When you gather with other believers to worship, engage your will, your understanding, and your desires before you utter a single song lyric. Ask yourself, “WHY will I sing today?” “What reason do I have to bring the One Most High God my worship?” Answering that question internally before you begin to participate externally will give your worship purpose. It will bring passion to your understanding AND understanding to your passion.

Lead worship wherever you’re standing. Some worshipers squelch their physical expression to match the crowd around them or fear the derision of their peers if they become too expressive. Worship leadership doesn’t simply come from the platform. Your willingness to fully be yourself in worship will give those around you permission to worship freely as well. The people around you are either looking for permission to be an engaged or an excuse to become a spectator. LEAD.

Be charitable. We all carry around our own hang-ups and baggage from previous experiences in the church. Cut each other some slack! Not everyone expresses their worship the same way you do. This is not a battle between the spiritually dead and the shallow attention seekers. We gather as the diverse and beautiful body of Christ, gracefully setting our personal preferences at the foot of the cross for one another’s sake.